“Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd’”
It is one of the great and classic images of care. Much beloved by the parade of generations who have gone before us, it appears constantly in glass and stone, in tapestry and mosaic even as the Shepherd’s Psalm, Psalm 23, shapes story and song, prayer and praise. The image of Christ the Good Shepherd is very much with us, even if, as the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, puts it, “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared/ with toil” and the world itself “wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil/is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” And there is all that sense of unease and fear, alienation and loss because we will not “reck his rod”; that is to say, think or consider the rule of God; in short, his providential care for us so wonderfully captured in the image of Christ the Good Shepherd.
But in the dominance of the therapeutic culture of our day, the all-too-comforting, cloying image of Christ the Good Shepherd, often viewed more like a teddy bear or a “Barney” figure, runs the risk of being co-opted to the religion of sentimentality and feeling, the religion of Hallmark cards and Happy Faces; in short, the religion of “Gentle-Jesus-Come-and-Squeeze-Us-Where-and-When-It-Pleases”! We too easily forget the radical nature of care that this image of Christ the Good Shepherd presents to us. The Good Shepherd, after all, “lay[s] down [his] life for the sheep.” The care of the Good Shepherd has death and resurrection in it. And so it is not by accident that this Gospel is read in Eastertide. The care is not so much comfort as it is challenge. It might even mean “drop kick me Jesus through the goal-posts of life!” Nothing particularly comforting about that!